I initially expected Stephin Merritt's Showtunes to be a covers album, a smorgasbord of songs from classic musicals as re-interpreted by the Magnetic Fields mainman. This illusion was shattered as soon as I looked at the tracklist:
Either Merritt was drawing from some pretty obscure shows, or I'd gotten the wrong end of the stick. I had a quick leaf through the liner notes, and actually, the truth of the matter was far more interesting: Stephin Merritt had written a bunch of original songs for a trio of productions that a man named Chen Shi-Zheng had put together. There's The Orphan of Zhao, based on a Chinese play from hundreds of years ago; there's Peach Blossom Fan, based on a Chinese play from hundreds of years ago; and there's My Life as a Fairy Tale, based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.
Showtunes is a mish-mash of the songs that Stephin Merritt wrote for these three shows; the end result is a sort of three-pronged concept album, with everything blended together and out of order. The stories are explained in the inlay: The Orphan of Zhao is all about revenge, Peach Blossom Fan is all about war (sort of), and My Life as a Fairy Tale is all about, uh, fairy tales.
Still, even if you're not trying to piece these narrative jigsaws together, Showtunes is still a great listen. It sounds very oriental, and it's great to hear this new spin on Merritt's usual brilliance: strip away the traditional Chinese instrumentation, and many of these songs would have been right at home on 69 Love Songs. I can't find it on YouTube, but listen to 'Shall We Sing a Duet?' and you'll see exactly what I mean.
Showtunes also boasts one of the best villain songs ever, I reckon:
And then there are my favourites, the real sad ones: The Little Maiden of the Sea, And He Would Say..., and In The Spring, When I Was Young are exquisitely heart-wrenching. This album cost me three pounds; you can probably get it for a similar amount on the internet if you know where to look (hint: Amazon Used & New), and I'd heartily recommend that you do. I only wish I could go and see the shows.